As the trial of Brother Lee Cheuk Yan, General Secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), and eight other democracy activists and human rights defenders began in Hong Kong this week, IUF members throughout the Asia-Pacific protested against this political persecution and expressed their solidarity for the fight for freedom in Hong Kong.
solidarity across the Asia-Pacific region
As the Hong Kong government tries to establish a political regime that is an extension of Beijing, all forms of public accountability and civil governance are being dismantled. But in attempting a politico-legal transition to authoritarian rule, the government violated its own laws, breaching the constitution and the constitutional rights of the Hong Kong people.
As the people reacted to this authoritarian shift with mass protest, the government severely curtailed more rights (freedom of assembly and freedom of expression) to contain public dissent. As the government lost all legitimacy, authorities moved to persecute those accused of organizing the protests. This misses the point: the protests were in response to the government’s attempt to extend the authoritarian reach of Beijing. The government’s actions instigated the protests in August 2019. So it’s the government that should be on trial.
What is also on trial is the Hong Kong government’s international standing. The Hong Kong government has further isolated itself internationally, systematically violating and undermining the principles and standards of the UN system, even as the government in Beijing tries to extend its influence throughout the UN system. The Hong Kong government repeatedly ignored calls by UN human rights experts reporting to the UN Human Rights Council to respect the right to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association; the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders called on the Hong Kong government to drop the charges against human democracy activists, rights defenders and trade unionists.
By ignoring this, the Hong Kong government once again demonstrated its hypocrisy. On the one hand desperate to justify itself on the international stage, and on the other claiming this is a local judicial matter (despite authorities and the police violating multiple laws repeatedly). The government also desperately claims that foreign forces are at work in supporting the democracy protests. Yet it is the Hong Kong people reaching out to the world, grabbing hold of internationally recognized universal human rights, and using these rights to protest and speak out that is the basis for their internationalism. And as Brother Lee Cheuk Yan demonstrated on the first day of his trial, by calling for support for the democracy protests in Myanmar, the only force at work in all of this is solidarity.
In the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic the Schreiber Dynamix Dairies Employees Union (SDDEU) in Baramati extended support for contract and casual workers, ensuring free PPE and financial support. Despite the challenges in the pandemic, the SDDEU also continued to negotiate the conversion of casual workers to permanent jobs.
Brother Nanaso Thorat, SDDEU President, presents a permanent appointment letter
On February 11, 2021, 20 casual workers were appointed to permanent positions. This included workers who were casuals for more than 15 years. This is the result of a sustained effort by the union to tackle precarious employment over the past ten years.
While the Nepal tourism industry faces a crisis in the ongoing global pandemic, trade unions in Nepal active in the hotel sector succeeded in defending the jobs and livelihoods of hotel and tourism workers. The active unions, including the IUF-affiliated Nepal Independent Hotel Workers Union [NIHWU], negotiated an agreement with the Hotel Association of Nepal (HAN) to guarantee the job security of hotel workers.
The agreement, which covers a one year period from January 1 to December 31, 2021, guarantees that no hotel workers will be laid off.
“We secured jobs as our first priority. So even those not working at all will still keep their jobs,” said Surya Bahadur, President NIHWU. “When the lock-down is over and business returns to normal, hotel workers will not need to search for jobs with rising unemployment. They will return to work, which is their right.”
Under the agreement hotel workers will also be paid wages according to a schedule of days worked. Any worker working more than fifteen days in a month will receive the full monthly wage.
In 2019 the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar observed that the impunity of Myanmar’s military is directly linked to its ability to operate independently of any government budget. Through a vast network of military-owned businesses in mining, plantations, sugar mills, beverage manufacturing, transportation, telecommunications, banking, insurance, airlines, hotels and entertainment, the military has its own source of economic power. It also has close business partners.
The UN report identified 45 “crony companies” and organizations in Myanmar that donated more than USD 10 million to support the military’s clearance operations in Rakhine State in 2017. These same companies financed development projects in Rakhine State in mining and infrastructure that furthered the military’s “objective of re-engineering the region in a way that erases evidence of Rohingya belonging to Myanmar.”
The UN Human Rights Council concluded that stopping the atrocities and human rights violations committed by the military and ending this impunity requires the financial isolation the military, its businesses, and the crony companies. The report listed over 120 companies owned directly and indirectly by the military for the first time. It also listed dozens of local and foreign companies doing business with them – companies effectively financing the military’s impunity for crimes against humanity.
Max Myanmar was one of the crony companies identified in the report. The chairperson of Max Myanmar, Zaw Zaw, is among those company officials that the UN report recommended for prosecution: “… the Mission concludes on reasonable grounds that officials from KBZ Group and Max Myanmar aided, abetted, or otherwise assisted in the crimes against humanity of persecution and other inhumane acts.”
The government did nothing. Despite operating two luxury hotels with Max Myanmar, the Paris-based transnational hotel company Accor also did nothing.
Dozens of foreign companies, banks and commodities traders continued doing business with the companies identified by the UN Human Rights Council as being involved in crimes against humanity. Many accused these companies of doing nothing. But they did do something. They indirectly financed this coup.
We should also recall that the UN report called for an arms embargo, identifying 14 foreign companies from seven countries [China, North Korea, India, Israel, the Philippines, Russia and Ukraine] that supplied fighter jets, armored combat vehicles, warships, missiles and missile launchers to Myanmar since 2016. But nothing happened. The people of Myanmar are facing these armored combat vehicles in the streets today.
The financial isolation the military, its businesses, and the crony companies and an arms embargo is urgently needed by the people of Myanmar in the struggle to end military rule and restore the path to democracy. Every foreign company must be called to account to ensure that it has absolutely no direct or indirect business relationships with any of the 120 companies and 45 crony companies listed in the UN report.
We know the feeling when we see a football match that’s rigged. Our team is playing with skill, talent and team work, following the rules and scoring brilliant goals. But the referee is handing out yellow and red cards to our team, and letting the other team cheat, foul and bluff their way to victory. Final whistle and we are left angry, frustrated and beaten. That’s how our members in TEAM felt this week when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Crown Company. In violation of the internationally recognized to freedom of association, the ruling upholds the right of Crown Resorts to terminate 22 workers for joining a union and speaking out about abusive working conditions and safety 10 years ago. For Crown Company the investment in the legal battle to silence workers on its resorts has paid off. But the cost for the Maldives is high, especially when the safe recovery of tourism needs the robust, confident voices of workers, not their fearful silence.
In the fragile recovery of tourism during an ongoing pandemic, international travellers fortunate enough to reach the Maldives expect to stay at safe hotels and resorts. Their safety depends not on protocols and policies but the experienced, skilled and committed staff who are able to keep them safe. The capacity of hotel and resort workers to do this depends on their own safety and security and their ability to speak out about safety concerns. This is underpinned by good industrial relations. Because the only way to speak out is collectively, without fear of reprisal. In other words, an unethical workplace where workers are treated badly and silenced through threats and intimidation easily translates into unsafe workplace and an unsafe resort.
These are the conditions Crown Company has created over the past 10 years. By diversifying into finance and private hospitals and cutting costs in its resorts, Crown Company has undermined the safety of workers and guests. The company has a record of unethical actions later justified as necessary for economic reasons.
In 2009 over 350 workers protested abusive working conditions at the Hilton Conrad Rangali Islands Resort, which was owned and managed by Crown Company. In response the company terminated 29 union members and leaders. After 22 union members challenged their unfair dismissal in the Employment Tribunal, the Tribunal ruled that the mass firings were unfair, and ordered management to reinstate the workers within 10 days with full back pay.
Instead of correcting this and following the sound judgement of the Employment Tribunal, Crown Company aggressively pursued the termination of union members. Appealing to the High Court, Crown Company, invested heavily in the legal fight to overturn the Employment Tribunal decision. This legal battle then continued over the next 10 years to the Supreme Court.
This investment in a legal battle to prevent reinstatement of the 22 unfairly dismissed union members was a significant political investment for Crown Company. Not only did it keep the Hilton Conrad resort free of a union – silencing workers who raised concerns about abusive working conditions. It also created a climate a fear in Crown’s other resorts including those operated jointly under Crown & Champa Resorts (CCR).
The message was clear: if you exercise your right to join a union and speak out about health and safety, an abusive management, and poverty wages, then you will be terminated, forcefully removed from the island and never be permitted to return. In a travesty of justice that casts doubt on the independence and integrity of the judicial system, the Supreme Court upheld Crown Company’s message on February 3, 2021.
Dismissed union members protesting off the coast of the island resort owned by Crown Company in October 2012.
This sets a very damaging precedent for the Maldives at a time when the government is making tremendous efforts in the recovery of tourism.
For this tourism recovery to be sustainable, the government must look beyond reopening to flights and maintaining COVID-19 testing and safety protocols. Rogue companies like Crown Company must be held accountable for its unethical behaviour. Workers at resorts fully or partly owned by Crown Company must be guaranteed the right to decent working conditions.
More importantly, workers must be guaranteed the right to speak out against substandard conditions, poor health and safety and other violations. If they continue to be silent, fearing dismissal – as the Supreme Court ruling seems to suggest they should – then no one can guarantee the safety of these resorts. The credibility and reputation of the whole Maldives tourism industry is at then put at risk.
And that’s the real cost of rigged matches.
The IUF Asia/Pacific Regional Organization condemns the military coup in Myanmar and supports the calls of the people of Myanmar to immediately and unconditionally release all detained political party leaders and elected representatives, journalists, writers and human rights defenders. The Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] must stand down from all elected government positions, withdraw from political and civilian affairs, and end their economic activities. They must go back to barracks!
We express our solidarity and support for the widespread civil disobedience across the country that demonstrates the rejection of military rule by the people and the desire for democracy to be restored.
The censorship by the Union Election Commission (UEC), any alleged voting irregularities, and restrictions on political parties participating in the November 2020 elections should be investigated through fair and transparent judicial means and comply with international human rights instruments. Similarly, the exclusion of over 2.6 million voters based on ethnicity should be investigated by the appropriate civilian authorities in line with internationally recognized human rights.
It is the right of the people of Myanmar to express their free will in accordance with the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights (Article 25), including the right to elect and be elected, and free and fair elections. These political and civil rights must be exercised “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
While the immediate goal is to end the military coup and restore civilian government, this threat to Myanmar’s fragile democracy reminds us that freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are vital to democracy. The legal and political restrictions existing before the coup should also end.
To ensure democracy and democratic rights, workers must have the genuine right to freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, unhindered by administrative restrictions, judicial bias and collusion between authorities and employers. These rights can no longer be put on hold in the transition to democracy. These rights are essential to building democracy.
The collusion between the civilian authorities, business tycoons and the Tatmadaw in land grabbing must end. The land rights of displaced small and marginal farmers must be restored. Large-scale mining operations and plantations involving land grabbing must end and land must be returned to small and marginal farmers and their communities. This is vital for democracy and the restoration of democratic rights.
We once again call for action to enforce the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar in 2018 and 2019. Accountability can only be enforced if the Tatmadaw is isolated financially, removing the sources of revenue and economic interests that are the basis for its autonomy and impunity. The basis for this coup. Concerted international action must be taken to isolate the Tatmadaw financially and to force its withdraw from economic activities.
End the coup! Back to barracks!